The Texas Tech Vietnam Center and Archive received a grant to begin the three-year long process of digitizing their collection of documents of war refugees in Vietnam during World War II.
They received the grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, said Mary Saffell, assistant director of the Vietnam Center and Archive.
The collection contains more than 13,000 documents from Vietnamese citizens who applied to leave Vietnam during and after World War II, she said.
“They were applying to something called the Orderly Departure Program,” Saffell said, “and that was a United Nation High Commission for Refugees program that was set up to help people safely and legally leave the country of Vietnam after the fall of South Vietnam.”
Leaving Vietnam was illegal at the time, Saffell said, so Vietnamese people would often flee the country using fishing boats, which would carry passengers numbering in the hundreds.
Because of their method of travel, she said, they were coined with the term ‘boat people.’
“They were going through dangerous waters,” Saffell said. “They encountered pirates. The vessels were not seaworthy for these kinds of voyages. And so many, many refugees, who were leaving Vietnam after the war, were really taking their lives in their hands. They were risking their lives to come to the United States or just leave Vietnam.”
Anna Mallett, a Vietnamese-American heritage archivist for the Vietnamese Center and Archive, said people applying to the Orderly Departure Program would need to prove their identity by providing documentation such as birth certificates, housing records, exit visas and drivers licenses.
A majority of the documents sent to the program are represented in the archive’s collection, she said.
“This collection is very exciting,” Mallett said. “We kind of consider this the Ellis Island of the Vietnamese-Americans. Half of the Vietnamese who left Vietnam came to the U.S., and Vietnamese-Americans are the largest post-World War II refugee group in the U.S.”
The digitization process, Mallet said, will begin Wednesday. Student workers will scan in each document one at a time by hand, which will then be added to an online archive that can be accessed anywhere in the world with an Internet connection.
Not only will the digital archives be useful to researchers, Saffell said, but to Vietnamese-Americans looking to connect with their culture’s past.
“There’s a growing historical discipline that is starting to studying Vietnamese-Americans, and this immigrant group, and their role in American culture and society today,” she said, “and it stems from some of the struggles they had when they were leaving Vietnam.”
Mallett said once the digitization is complete, it will allow people to trace back their genealogy and family lineage through the documents with more ease than using the name search database the archive uses now.
Huy Trinh, a senior accounting major from Vietnam, helped process the collection of documents, and said doing so made him feel more connected to his country.
“When you take a look at those pictures and those files,” Trinh said, “I’m Vietnamese, so I feel like I’m getting a lot of knowledge about our history and I’m learning a lot from that.”
The archive was started in 1989 by Jim Reckner, a retired professor of history at Texas Tech and a Vietnam veteran, Saffell said.
Reckner started collecting documents from the Vietnam War with a group of other veterans, she said.
“In addition to this collection of the refugee papers, we have thousands of collections that are donated by American military veterans, civilians, anti-war protesters,” Saffell said. “The whole collection is really about the Vietnam War. The refugee papers that we’re going to digitize, that’s only a small portion of the research material that we have here.”
Mallett said the international reputation the center has is all thanks to Reckner.
“The main thing that I love about working here is that Dr. Reckner made it our mission to collect all aspects,” she said, “not just, like, veterans against the war, or veterans for the war. He wanted the wives, you know, ‘doughnut dollies.’”
Reckner is retired from the university, Saffell said, but is still involved with the center.
“He serves on our advisory board and will pop in occasionally,” she said. “He’s still doing some research, so Dr. Reckner is still very much a part of what we’re doing.”